Five Essential Yoga Stretches for Runners
I am a trail runner, a yoga teacher, and a single mother. I am not sure which of these causes me the most joy or the most suffering. They each have their moments, I suppose. Today I am choosing the joy and suffering of running nine miles in the mountains. I feel tired, tight, and satisfied.
As a yogi, I understand the intense effect running has on the body and I value the importance of stretching to keep my joints and muscles in balance. At the end of a long run my soul is soothed, and I take a moment to soothe my body as well.
I start by stepping my right foot forward and dropping to my left knee. Hooking my left toes under, I press into my left leg until I can feel the stretch in my hip flexors. The energy of the back leg pulls my torso away from my right quad. Then I bend the right knee deeper and lift my left knee off the ground into a runners lunge. This engagement of the back leg keeps my lower back free from compression and keeps the stretch in my legs.
Now I shift the focus to my hips. After long runs my hips feel incredibly sore. Most women runners have wider hips than men. It’s an anatomical feature I have for the most part made peace with; however, some backcountry singletrack trails are quite narrow and require me to cross foot over foot, putting pressure on the outer hip joint.
From my lunging position I lower my elbows to the ground. Keeping my right knee next to my right shoulder, I come into Lizard Pose. My left knee is still off the ground as I feel the stretch deeply in my right hip. I allow my right knee to turn gently open and my foot to roll to the outer edge. This relieves the tightness in my pelvis and hip socket. I’ll repeat these poses on the left side until both hips feel settled.
Next I step back into Downward Facing Dog. This is a yoga pose I have done hundreds of times, yet my body feels different every time I do it. Downward Facing Dog can stretch the back, hamstrings, and calves, but today this pose is for my shoulders. Pressing my chest towards my legs, I keep my heels lifted, hips back, and breathe deeply into my shoulders as my head drops between my arms.
Mental burdens can tighten my shoulders when I run. Are my kids happy? Did I pay the bills on time? Am I putting energy into the right work project? Am I lovable? If I’m not careful, stretches of beautiful scenery will pass by while I’m engaged in “solve it” mode. That’s when I practice the yoga concept of staying present. I refocus on my breathing and begin to notice the trees and flowers again. But those momentary lapses of stressful thinking create tightness in my shoulders, which now, in Downward Facing Dog, I feel releasing.
I’ve been known to lie in the dirt after a run to ensure a good stretch. Today is no exception. I lie on my back and cross my right leg over my left. I reach up, grab my feet, and pull my knees towards my chest. This is a variation on Supta Gomukhasana, or Cow’s Head pose. I remember the first time I did this pose. I was in a yoga class with a friend and we looked at each other as if to say, “This hurts so good!” Now it’s become a standard post-run stretch that I feel in my hip, piriformis, IT band, knee, even my ankle. I wish I had a friend here to sit on my crossed ankles to torture me and deepen the stretch.
After I’ve done this on both sides, I put my feet to ground with bent knees in a wide bridge pose. Moving my knees from side to side I am doing one of my favorite stretches called windshield wipers. It stretches my quads right where I need it. As I focus on exhaling, I feel the tightness in my legs releasing.
I can also feel that my session of mountain solitude needs to wrap up. My children will be expecting me to manage dinner, homework, and bedtime. I finish with what I believe is the most important pose, Savasana. Lying with legs and arms extended, I am completely still. Closing my eyes, I tune into my breathing and soften the ribs around my heart. I imagine I am absorbing the calming energy from the earth beneath me. My heart rate has slowed down, my breathing is slow and full.
I feel pride and gratitude to be a part of a community of women trail runners and yoginis that value health, the mountains, running, and have a desire to push ourselves. We are doing things our mother’s generation never did. I’ve already introduced my children to the yoga mat. I hope I can also inspire them to come play on the trails in the mountains.
As I make the drive home down the winding canyon road, I feel strong, relaxed, and ravenously hungry. I also feel deep satisfaction in my body and soul. No problems were solved, the world didn’t change while I was running (or did it?) but something inside me shifted. I’m not sure if it was the running, the yoga, or the magic of the mountains, but I feel courageous and patient to face my challenges, and a renewed appreciation for the goodness of life.